By Niesha Lofing
For football fans, weekends and Monday nights are about to get a lot more exciting.
The blitzes, the touchdowns, the cheers, the chili.
While there's something uniquely satisfying about hunkering down in front of the TV with a bowl of thick, spicy red, late-season football fare just isn't as appealing in 100-degree heat as during blustery winter months. And hot dogs and chips, though fine for tailgating, just don't cut it at home.
But advantages like extra daylight and a bounty of late summer and early fall produce, coupled with simple techniques, can serve as major assists for home cooks looking to feed a crowd of fans.
For Bruce Aidells, legendary meat master and cookbook author, the start of football season heralds a decades-long tradition with his buddies.
Every Monday night, the seven friends get together at one of their homes to watch the game. The host is in charge of the meal, which is served during halftime.
"We tend to be much heavier on the barbecue stuff this time of year and then move to a lot of one-pot dishes and roasts as we get into the winter," Aidells said. "Barbecuing works this time of year because we still have daylight."
Ribs and meat that can be grilled quickly during halftime are popular. Burgers aren't allowed.
"Certain things we just don't do because you'd get left out of the group," he said.
The meat might be familiar, but don't be surprised if you start seeing unusual spices creeping into game day menus, he said.
"Particularly Moroccan flavors, which is great," Aidells said.
Above all, he said, cooks should remember to keep it simple.
"It's just less stress, especially if you're not a professional cook," he said.
Like good food and wine, enjoying a football game should be about camaraderie and enjoying the company you're with, said Susie Selby, owner of Selby Winery in Healdsburg and a die-hard NFL fan.
"The only thing worse than a sports fan slaving away over the barbecue is a non-sports fan slaving over a barbecue," she said.
Preparing food in advance of the game is a great way to guarantee time with friends. A thick, rich bowl of chili might not be appetizing this time of year, but a crockpot full of white chicken chili can be made the day before and kept warm in a slow cooker, allowing guests to serve themselves.
Or assemble a tray of green enchiladas even weeks before, freeze them and pull them out to bake off right before the big game.
Need simpler? Take a tip from Selby and stock up on brats and have an array of condiments, like homemade sauerkraut, for friends to choose from.
"It's just more conducive to enjoying a sporting event if you're not watching a host or hostess cook," she said.
Early season games also are the perfect time to take advantage of the abundance of late summer produce.
"Fall 2010 is going to be all about the vegetables," said Tyler Florence, chef and Food Network television host.
"I always think vegetables are so much more interesting than protein. A pork chop tastes the same in July as in November, but as a chef I get jazzed about keeping stuff with the seasons."
And since Florence has teamed up with the Hass avocado folks, of course one thing he suggested for football gatherings is, shocker, guacamole.
"It can sound pedestrian, but guacamole, one that's really tart, with a lot of lime juice, is incredible," he said during a phone interview.
Use serrano chilis - not jalapenos - for guacamole, he advised.
"Serrano chilis will warm your mouth up and go for the back of the tongue," Florence said. "It has a nicer bite, nicer flavor."
Cilantro, a tiny bit of white onion, dash of olive oil, salt, pepper and lots
of lime juice completes Florence's spin on the traditional.
Jessica Williams, a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Sacramento, said appetizers and small plates remain the big trend in party food.
That explains the slider-size burger patties at Trader Joes.
But for football parties, don't get hung up on complicated hors d'oeuvres. Finger food like wings and nachos are fine, just rework them.
"All you have to do is put a spin on what's to your liking," she said. "Make your wings Asian wings instead of spicy. Make Mediterranean fries with olive oil, chopped olives, capers and parsley."
A menu as exciting as the game itself? That could help you score a culinary MVP.
MAKE IT EASY
Hosting a game day gathering? Here are some tips.
Prep early. Don't wait until an hour before to get cooking. Plot out what you'll be serving, even if it's takeout, so nothing gets forgotten in the fridge. Set out dishes and utensils.
Accept offers of help. If your best buddy Walt wants to bring a bean salad, let him. Just don't be afraid to let others who offer to help know what is still needed. You don't want a table of bean salads.
Running out of room in the fridge? Move the beer to an aluminum pail or bucket full of ice. No one will mind.
Accept compliments with a simple "thank you." If someone raves about your ribs, say "thanks" and move on. Verbal recipe highlights instant boredom.
Need to quickly ripen an avocado? Stick it in a brown paper bag with an apple. The natural ethylene gas from the apple will help ripen the other fruit, said chef Tyler Florence.